Think Tank (1/2023)
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Buddhist Nationalism in Myanmar & Sri Lanka: Rhetoric, Responses, Challenges
31 Jan 2023
Claribel Low

The Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme (SRP) held a webinar on 30 January 2023 titled “Buddhist Nationalism in Myanmar and Sri Lanka: Rhetoric, Responses, Challenges”. Convened and chaired by Assistant Professor Rafal Stepien, the panel featured two experts on the region: Matthew Walton, Assistant Professor of Comparative Political Theory at the University of Toronto, and Elizabeth Harris, Honorary Senior Research Fellow with the Edward Cadbury Centre for the Public Understanding of Religion at the University of Birmingham.

Professor Walton began his talk on Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar with a brief survey of the key actors involved. Thereafter, he argued that the term “Buddhist nationalism” should be disaggregated to refer to “an assemblage of groups, goals, enemies, practices and concepts”. Finally, Walton highlighted that the wider repercussions of revolutionary sentiments against the military coup for the Buddhist nationalist movement remain to be seen.

Professor Harris traced the roots and expressions of Sinhala Buddhist identity in Sri Lanka through a historical lens. She argued that the association of “Sinhalaness” with Buddhism, together with the inheritance of colonialism, contributed to a situation of “subordinating inclusivism”, whereby religious minorities were only embraced if they accepted Buddhism’s place at the top of Sri Lanka’s religious hierarchy. In her reflection, she noted that historical legacies, coupled with contemporary geopolitical circumstances, have kept the perception of threat fresh in the mind of Buddhist nationalists.

The webinar concluded with a lively discussion spurred by attendees’ questions. Walton, in particular, emphasised the role of hyperlocal examples in enabling the discursive strategies of Buddhist nationalists to proliferate at national, regional, and global levels. Meanwhile, Harris emphasised that plural societies intent on maintaining interreligious harmony should maintain equal playing fields for all communities so that everyone feels assured their positions are represented by political leaders.

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